Eliza and Mandy: When Medical Issues Spiral into Homelessness (Housing Stability Program)

Eliza and Mandy have worked for decades in medical billing jobs, but complications from medical problems snowballed into distress and homelessness that left them reeling for years -- until they finally found Bridges to Housing Stability and received the help they needed.  

Now, they’ve been living for five months in a Columbia condo owned by Bridges, which charges them an affordable rent.  In addition, Bridges staff members – including Kristin Miller and Kim Pace – found donated furniture for them, provided food and gift cards for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and have also helped with vital advice on budgeting and other needs. Now, Eliza and Mandy are stable once again. 

“The Bridges Alliance Program owns and operates 47 apartments and townhouses for people making low to moderate income,” said Miller, the program manager.  In addition to offering affordable rents, the program is often able to house families with rental histories that other landlords wouldn’t accept. 

Their long, fraught tale began in 2016, the two women said. They were living in a Baltimore County apartment when Mandy developed severe back problems that landed her in surgery four times over the next several years. Her long-term disability payments suddenly ended in the midst of her recovery, she said, and the couple could no longer pay the rent. 

Not understanding that they were in danger of eviction, neither was home when the sheriff showed up one morning and put all their belongings out on the street. Most of it, they said, was either thrown away or taken by passersby. It was a devastating blow.

“It was all over the parking lot,” Eliza said. “I thought they’d allow us time to get our stuff out.” Mandy said she was no help. “I could barely move,” after all the back surgery. They retrieved a few things, like some clothing they found outside, and belongings from their storage locker, but irreplaceable family heirlooms, along with their furniture, “was all over the parking lot,” Mandy said. “And then it started to rain.” This occurred just after her mother had died.

“The first night we went to a motel,” Mandy said, and then they moved to an extended stay hotel, which lasted about eight months. “We begged and borrowed money to stay,” she added, while Eliza arranged for them to move in with her mother and older brother. 

After six months there, family tensions came to a boil. Mandy had finally been approved for disability payments, she said, and with the first lump-sum payment she received for the previous months, she thought there might be enough to get a new place of their own.

But with an eviction on their record, they couldn’t find a landlord who would rent to them,  Mandy said. “No one would take us. No one.”  

The tension became too great to bear, and they ended up in another extended stay motel, which chewed up the savings they were relying on. Meanwhile, Mandy had fallen and broke an ankle, making things that much worse. 

“I had no hope. It was very hard,” Mandy said.

But this time, they moved to a motel in Columbia, just a couple miles from Eliza’s job. Mandy dug into her computer looking for a way out and stumbled on Bridges. After her initial contact, it still took months before Kim, who heads the Bridges Housing Connections program, and Kristin were able to find a place for them to live. A previous tenant had moved out of an Alliance unit.

 “It took a long time to get comfortable and relax,” Eliza said, “but now we can breathe.” 

Carmen Jones (Bridges Alliance Program)

“A load of bad decisions” forced Carmen into three years of homelessness. Her only resources were an aging car and a waitressing job that didn’t pay enough to keep her permanently housed. For three years, she spent long periods living in her car, interspersed with short stays in weekly motels. As Carmen describes that dark time, she says “I was always just beat down. It was so frustrating to want to improve my situation – and knowing that I was capable – but because I didn’t have a stable home, I couldn’t get unstuck. Every time I took one step forward, something else caused me to take two steps back. I couldn’t stay organized – it was impossible to do that while homeless.” 

Then, in July 2019, with her car out of commission, a Lyft driver provided her with a phone number for Bridges to Housing Stability. Carmen submitted an application for Alliance, the Bridges affordable rental program, but her income was too low to qualify. The program manager discussed options with her, including the idea of joining forces with a family member or friend with their own employment income so that the two could share rent. As it happened, Carmen was hoping to be reunited with her son, 22, who was then renting a “dark, moldy” basement room in Columbia.  

Together, their two incomes qualified them for the program, and they were able to move into an Alliance rental unit. “The day we moved in, I got another breath of life,” Carmen says. “It was like the sun came out.”  

Carmen’s home has provided a platform for her personal and professional development. “Just having the safety and stability of the home, I could get myself organized, tackle my to-do list, and then think about the next steps. Everything started falling into place.” Her achievements have been impressive. 

While continuing to work multiple part-time jobs, Carmen enrolled in an IT certification program and just completed her final course.  

Working with a financial coach, referred by Bridges, she has increased her credit score by over 100 points.  

She has returned to regular medical visits and has been visiting the Maryland Dental School regularly to receive treatments for tooth disease.  

She has lost 50 pounds through regular exercise and improved nutrition.   

And she has begun to give back, by volunteering regularly with a community organization that distributes food to needy households.   

Her long-term goal is to start a non-profit focused on helping people who are homeless.   

Carmen reflects on the path she has taken. “None of this would have been possible without a roof over my head. I cry some nights about everything that I've wanted to do for so long, and how long it was put off while I was sleeping in my car. I'm so motivated now because I have stability.” 

 

Diamond Hall (Housing Stability Program)

Diamond is an independent and driven veteran who has been stably housed within Bridges’ Housing Stability Program for over five years. Before entering the program, Diamond and two of her children were precariously housed and at risk of experiencing homelessness. Being in between jobs, paying child support for her third child, and commuting to work with no vehicle made saving money for an apartment a serious difficulty.

Diamond was reluctant to seek help but eventually reached out to Bridges and was determined eligible for the permanent supportive housing program.  However, her battle with depression made it difficult to manage daily living activities and achieve her dream of assisting veterans with finding resources needed to thrive in their communities. With the assistance of her case manager, Diamond was able to reconnect with her mother, who provides financial assistance and childcare when needed to support Diamond. Through case management, Diamond has also got connected to mental health and medical services. While Diamond worked to find employment, Bridges provided rental and energy assistance to ensure she and her children maintain stable housing. Diamond was ecstatic when she obtained a job working with other veterans. Becoming stably employed, implementing a budget, managing mental and physical health, and establishing a support system have allowed Precious to thrive and achieve a stress-free way of life. 

Diamond is very happy that her commuting issues have resolved by working at home. "Last year had its challenges, but I didn't give up," she proudly reported. Diamond’s consistency in the Housing Stability Program has made her eligible for a move-on voucher in Howard County, meaning she is stable enough to no longer case management and will continue to receive financial assistance. 

Nikesha: Living Through the Trials of COVID (Housing Stability Program)

The COVID pandemic nearly sunk Nikesha’s finances, but a combination of her own resilience, her self-described “bubbly personality,” and lots of help from several private and government agencies has kept her economically afloat -- so far.

“I’m still in hot water, but I’m not drowning anymore,” the 39-year old single mother of three said, thanks to pandemic relief money, temporary aid, and vital financial help from Bridges to Housing Stability.

A native New Yorker, Nikesha said she moved herself and her two youngest boys, both under age 10, to Columbia two years ago because all her expenses would be lower here than in the Empire State. She bought a car, rented an apartment with her savings, and was ready to start job hunting when “everything shut down. I had a whole bunch of things going on,” she said.

And as so often happens, the complications she encountered always made things worse. Her then 3-year old son has asthma, and her youngest was only a few months old, so she felt she needed to stay home. She also has some physical limitations: she can’t lift heavy objects, and a hand injury prevents her from typing for long periods of time.

But she’s game for the struggle. “I try to do prevention, she said. She had paid her rent several months in advance, but contacted her landlord and her car loan firm to explain the problem and ask for time. She got consideration from both. Then she started calling every possible relief agency she could find.

Meanwhile, since her older son’s New York college had also shut down, he came home and helped watch the younger children, so she was able to start working part-time.

After months, she was behind on all of her bills, but the Community Action Council was able to use federal pandemic relief money to pay her back rent. She stayed in touch with her lenders, explaining that she had worked since age 13 and paying what she could to show them good faith. 

Despite all that, she has received numerous eviction notices over the past two years, she said. “I had to go to court a couple of times,” she said, to persuade judges not to allow her eviction. None of the struggle was easy. “There was many a night and many a day I cried and felt fed up,” she recalled.

Finally, in October, 2021, she was referred to Bridges for case management and other services. 

That’s when Luveth Portillo Carbajal, a graduate student in social work and an intern Housing Advocate at Bridges, first met with her.

“She needed upcoming rent and she was looking for work,” Carbajal said.  Yet, since she had not been evicted and had acted so vigorously in getting help to stay in her apartment and keep her car, she was actually in better shape than many Bridges clients who are homeless and living in shelters.

“It does make it a lot easier” to help, Carbajal said, adding that Nikesha is a hard-working mother. She didn’t want to be dependent but she needed assistance, especially with finding day care after her 19-year old returned to college. 

She enrolled her older child in Head Start and her two-year old into day care, and a couple weeks later, landed a warehouse job through a temp agency. Bridges helped with her rent and used donations to provide Thanksgiving food and Christmas presents for her boys.  Bridges also found a donated computer she could use at home.

“I’m still overwhelmed,” she said, “but I’m still working,” said the former hairdresser.

“Because of the Grace of God, one day at a time,” Nakisha said. “They definitely helped me when I was at the weakest point in my life,” she said of Bridges and all the agencies who helped her stay housed and financially afloat.

Desiree Williams (Housing Stability Program)

After Desiree aged out of the foster care system, her foster mom offered to let her stay for another two years. But then Desiree got pregnant and her housing situation became untenable. That began a nearly 7-year period in which she repeatedly fell in and out of homelessness.

At first, she was able to find housing with a cousin in Virginia, but the situation didn’t work out and she moved back to Maryland, without a permanent place to live.

She tried staying with different friends. Some stays were long, others brief.

Nothing lasted. Always she had to leave.

“It was an endless cycle,” Desiree says.

She tried to make ends meet, doing whatever work she could. At one point she worked as a restaurant server and part-time bartender while taking overnight shifts at Amazon. But she could never assemble enough money to stabilize her housing.

Over the years, her family grew to include her boyfriend and three children. The housing struggles continued. And because she and her boyfriend couldn’t afford a car, they were often unable to keep their jobs when they had to move. So the jobs came and went.

“It’s hard to get back on your feet when you’re homeless,” Desiree says. “It’s such a struggle. I had always wanted to restart nursing school, but that was just impossible as we were moving from place to place.”

Finally, at their lowest point, the family was placed in the Grassroots shelter for 7 months. And in late 2019, they were referred to the Bridges Rapid Rehousing program.

The goal with Rapid Rehousing is to move a client into a home within 30-45 days. Rapid Rehousing is grounded in the “Housing First” model, which experts increasingly view as an effective solution to homelessness.  The model assumes that people experiencing homelessness need basic necessities like food and a stable home before they can fully focus on other tasks such as job training, budgeting their money, and attending to their mental health. Studies have shown that the Housing First approach helps people exit homelessness quickly – and remain housed for the long-term. At Bridges, 85% of families transition from Rapid Rehousing programs to stable, permanent housing without additional subsidies.

The Bridges case manager found housing for Desiree almost immediately, and she and her family were able to move into their home in February, 2020.

“It was the best feeling,” she says. “It felt like we had made it. We finally had a roof over our heads for our children. And they had their own beds. A lot of stress was gone. It was a big relief and it felt like a big accomplishment.”

Desiree immediately turned her focus to restarting her education.

“As soon as we got into a home, I was able to restart school. That was always my goal but it was so hard to do when I was homeless.”

In 2020, Desiree completed training and received certification as a nursing assistant. And at the height of the pandemic, she found work in a nursing home. Then she pursued training as a Patient Care Technician and recently landed a job at the Howard County General Hospital. Her boyfriend has also been able to return to job training to become a licensed commercial driver.

Desiree can now see her future clearly. She is currently working full-time at the hospital and is also enrolled in school part-time to become a registered nurse. After that, she’ll continue with part-time school until she receives her bachelor’s degree in nursing. That should mean higher pay and the financial capacity to someday buy a home.

Desiree credits Bridges and the Rapid Rehousing program with helping her create the foundation for her success.

"Without Bridges,” she says, “I wouldn’t have been able to restart school. I wouldn’t have gotten the job at the hospital. Bridges helped me get stable, go to school, and keep a job. I had my head on right. I knew what I needed. I just needed help getting stabilized."

 

Sydney Smith Jr. (Bridges Alliance Program)

At age 42, Sydney Smith Jr. had spent much of his adult life in trouble. He was a repeat offender who had bounced in and out of prison numerous times. When he wasn’t incarcerated, he was unable to sustain himself independently.   

“I never made it to my third month of rent in any place I ever lived,” he says, explaining that he was often homeless or forced to stay with friends.   

Awaiting his release from prison in 2019, he worried that the cycle was beginning all over again. “I knew that after my release, I didn’t want to keep breaking the law. I didn’t want to start getting high. I didn’t want to harm anybody. But at the same time, I knew that I didn’t have any real-life skills that would help me make it. That was a huge fear. I couldn’t see how I was going to succeed.” 

Sydney is not unique. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, returning citizens face tough obstacles. They have to find a steady job -- which often requires them to learn new skills – as they are dealing with difficult health issues such as addiction. Before they can tackle those challenges, however, they need a stable place to live. Unfortunately, returning citizens are almost 10 times more likely to be homeless than the general public.  

Sydney was fortunate. Upon his release from prison, he was accepted into a local recovery house, where he stayed for six months and worked on his recovery from addiction. “At first I was totally afraid of the process,” he says. “But I found that I could commit, for the first time in my life, to allowing people to help me and guide me. Sobriety was one part of it. I knew that in order to have a chance, I couldn’t use drugs or alcohol. But it was also very important to get constant reassurance from people who told me that it was going to be okay.”  

When his time at the recovery house reached an end, he was accepted into the Guilford House, the transitional home for formerly incarcerated men that Bridges operates in partnership with the Howard County Department of Corrections (DOC). The home is a stable, supportive environment for its residents, who can stay for up to one year as long as they find a job and obey house rules that are overseen by a live-in house manager who is employed by DOC. Residents pay half of their work earnings into escrow, allowing them to build the nest egg they need to move into permanent housing.  

Sydney spent nearly one year at the Guilford House. During that time, he received promotions at work, became a Certified Recovery Coach, and began work on his certification as a Peer Recovery Specialist.   

“Guilford House was a great place for me,” Sydney says“It allowed me to save up first and last month’s rent. I was also able to buy a car, which expanded my work options even further. At the same time, I was learning how to manage money responsibly for the first time in my life. As an ex-offender, that stability helped to give me a new perspective. It was so important to be around people who were trying to accomplish the same things and find a new way to live life.”    

Sydney looks back on his journey in quiet amazement. “My life is now totally different. If you were to ask me about that guy coming out of jail 18 months ago, if I could believe that my life would be where it is today, I would have said that wasn’t possible. I wake up and I feel hopeful. I’ve got a job, a bank account, an insured car. I’m sitting here in my own rocking chair as I talk to you. I have peace today. That’s huge for me.”   

Michael (Housing Stability Program

Michael is a retired U.S. Air Force Officer, father, and college graduate who became homeless after being falsely arrested in 2018 and spending two months in jail. By the time the charges were dropped, Michael had lost his high-paying job, house, and car. He then spent his savings living in hotels as long as he could while awaiting the start of the Veteran Affairs application process to receive his pension. During that process, Michael became homeless and went to live in the Howard County shelter. Michael describes this moment by saying, “that was very heartbreaking for me. I mean it was rough because I went from one situation to a rock bottom situation.”

Michael gained temporary employment and was able to obtain housing for about four months. However, after his work contract ended, Michael was laid off. In October 2019 was referred to Bridges to Housing Stability by his prison re-entry coordinator. Michael now had income from his veteran’s pension and began looking for housing and employment with a Bridges’ Housing Advocate and Employment Retention Specialist’s assistance. Michael remained diligent, although he struggled for some time to maintain long-term employment. In June 2020, when Michael began a supervisor position, he was on the road to self-sufficiency. By September, his case was successfully closed. However, in November, Michael had switched jobs again and needed financial assistance as he accumulated back rent while he was in between jobs. Bridges provided the one-time assistance Michael required to maintain stable housing. He is now self-sufficient and stably employed as a unity manager.

“They were able to help me get to the point where I’m independent again. I have a decent place to live, and my daughter has a decent place to live... They were patient enough to understand that I don’t have the money to pay for everything. If you leave me with nothing, then I will have nothing. I can’t eat, I can’t get to work…so they were understanding in that fashion,” says Michael.

Bridges is honored to have supported this veteran during his hardships to once again providing for his family and live comfortably. This is a true testament that with a little help from the community, hard work and tenacity pay off.

Jackson (Housing Stability Program)

Jackson has suffered from an ongoing debilitating illness his entire adult life. He needs to use a wheelchair to get around and was unable to work due to his physical limitations and frequent hospitalizations. Living in his car for several years has made Jackson's condition much worse.

When Jackson was referred to Bridges, his disability income was $650 a month. He was willing to move anywhere in Maryland, but it was hard finding a wheelchair accessible, income-based unit. Jackson’s Housing Advocate at Bridges helped him obtain the necessary documents and complete his housing application. Soon after, Jackson moved into a supportive housing unit.

Jackson really enjoyed his new apartment but struggled to maneuver through the doorways of his building. The Housing Advocate advocated on Jackson's behalf with building management and within a few weeks, additional modifications were made to his door and the complex entrance. Bridges was glad we could help ensure Jackson has an accessible living space.

Jackson has been stable for nearly two years now and receives the medical care he needs to stay out of the hospital and remain active in his community.